Tag Archives: adaptation

“The Game is Afoot”: Copyright, Fanbases, and Remix Culture

Before reading Lawrence Lessig’s Remix, I already had an interest in—if not very comprehensive knowledge of—copyright law. Lessig’s book reminded me of a recent(ish) legal case involving late-Victorian literature that I followed and which prompted me to think about the ways in which ideas of copyright law and remix culture are actually framed in public discourse.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson Illustration by Sidney Paget for the story "The Greek Interpreter," which appeared in September 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
Illustration by Sidney Paget for the story “The Greek Interpreter,” which appeared in September 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine.

About a year ago, Leslie S. Klinger, leading Sherlock Holmes expert and editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (a three-volume behemoth that took up quite a bit of my savings—and now quite a bit of my desk) filed a civil complaint against the Arthur Conan Doyle estate regarding the copyright status of the author’s most famous stories. Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times gave a fairly thorough summary of the proceedings in her 15 February 2013 blog post, but the main gist is that Klinger protested against what he saw as unfair licensing fees for the (“remixed”?) versions of Doyle’s characters featured in “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of Holmesian stories he edited. Klinger argued that “since the main characters and elements of their story derived from materials published before Jan. 1, 1923,” they were no longer under the jurisdiction of U. S. copyright law, and his “complaint asks that the court make a declaratory judgment establishing  that the basic ‘Sherlock Holmes story elements’ are in the public domain” (Schuessler). Free-Sherlock.com, not to mention innumerable fan-sites, blogs, and social media outlets followed the case eagerly, the former providing a blow-by-blow of the actions filed, cases reviewed, and results achieved.

And, lo and behold, less than a year later (27 January 2014), Klinger—at least temporarily—won his case and Sherlock Holmes officially became part of the public domain. But what does that even mean?

In a segment titled “Sherlock’s Expiring Copyright: It’s Public Domain, Dear Watson,” All Things Considered explains that “A federal judge in Chicago recently ruled that the characters in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories — excluding any elements introduced in the last 10 stories released in the U.S. after 1922 — now reside in the public domain”—even though those ten stories will be available within a decade. Yet, the matter does not rest there: Doyle estate attorney William Zieske claims that a forthcoming appeal will argue “that a character, particularly a literary character, really does not become entirely formed until the author has put down his pen and finished with the last story that develops that character” (All Things Considered). If we are using Lessig’s terminology, it seems we have reached an impasse (at least in opinion) between RW and RO.

Yet, I can’t help thinking about the dedicated Holmes fan-base, which has existed since the first stories first appeared in the The Strand Magazine in the 1890s and has only grown in size and enthusiasm over the course of the twentieth century, and in the wake of popular twenty-first century adaptations  like the superb BBC modernization, Sherlock. In fact, according to Christopher Redmond’s 2009 A Sherlock Holmes Handbook, “Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more films, and been represented by more actors than any other character” (232)–that is saying something, particularly considering the broad range of interpretations, parodies, and spinoffs that have been created in almost every medium possible.

Besides these “official” adaptations, there have also been a broad range of fan-created interpretations that exist largely online (art community and forum deviantART seems to be a major breeding ground). Popular iterations include slash pairing Johnlock, gender-swapped version Femlock (with some crossover to the previous iteration), and the ever-popular turn-human-characters-into-some-sort-of-adorable-animal (Sherlock ponies are a thing).

Adapting/remixing: it’s what people do. (Besides die, in the original context–James Moriarty (played by Andrew Scott) from BBC “Sherlock” episode, “The Great Game”)

Often, these “remixes” are artistic/aesthetic, but there’s also plenty of fan fiction, video mash-ups, and cosplay that supplement and fuel these offshoots. Gregg Gillis’ characterization of what he does with music being “more like a game and less like a product” (15) applies here–it’s probably safe to assume that most people in this particular fandom are simply engaging in these various ways out of love rather than with the desire to “publish” or profit from their “products” outside of sharing it with other fans. The “game” is indeed afoot.

What then do we make of this sort of unofficial “remixing,” particularly in the context of the still-raging debates about what use of texts/characters is allowed in legal terms, as well by the unspoken rules of fan-created media?

(A disclaimer: my appreciation of the Sherlock Holmes canon has never prompted me to venture into the realm of creating fan art, fan fiction, or “product” of any kind–I just observe many of these iterations with some amuse-/bemusement.)

Remix or Adaptation

I was really surprised to find out that Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013) was nominated in Academy Award for best original screenplay. I had been seriously waiting for its nomination, but for best adapted screenplay, and its originality was the last thing in the world that I could talk about while thinking about this particular film. I could not, and cannot, understand how such an obvious adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s globally recognized A Streetcar Named Desire could be considered original and even be nominated for that originality. Could an adaptation suddenly become original just because we do not call it an adaptation or we prefer to see it as an original? Is being an adaptation a subjective label or an objective reality? How would the culture of remix, following Lessig’s terms, draw a definite border between originals and adaptations regarding internal content rather than external form?

According to an extreme critical approach which has always been challenging to me, each new act of creation could be an act of adaptation, there is no originality in the world and each apparently new idea  is regenerating itself one way or the other. I try to expand the same view to the phenomenon of remix in digital age, and I tend to perceive each new product as a new adaptation. Then I would evaluate adaptations, as one usually does in basic adaptation studies, as good ones, bad ones, responsible ones, irresponsible ones, cheating ones, faithful ones, cross-cultural ones, historical ones etc. I would also need to open a category for original adaptations , the nominees would be those works that can get beyond the hunting shadow of their resources. However, analyzing a work of adaptation in the culture of remix is not always as simple as discovering or naming the pieces of music that have been cut and remixed with each other. There are hidden layers to original adaptations!


A pervasive culture of remix would be able to produce a complex generation of adaptations that are not going to reveal their origins neither to common audience nor to lawyers. To possess an idea or a process, and to prove its possession would be much more complicated than to possess a form or a product. As the smartest works of remix start to get rid of their evident dependencies on other works, there will be no authoritative origin to point the legal finger at easily. If adaptations populate the stage without introducing themselves as adaptations, how are we going to analyze adapted remixes with the same criteria that we usually have for comparing originals and copies? The answer will define our initial approach and ultimate expectation, as adaptations stand on a grey ambiguous territory between originals and copies. Adaptations are not always easy to decipher.